Falling into the gap, by Megan Castellan

Every so often, the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life releases a study, and everyone in the church pores over it with bated breath, like ancient mariners trying to predict weather in the stars.  And so, last week, it was that this year’s study was released, which revealed that the number of people in the United States who are unaffiliated with any organized religion is unprecedentedly high, at just under 20% of the population.
This number is an increase from previous findings, and includes the percentages of atheists and agnostics, but also includes roughly 15% of respondents who believe in God, and have strong spiritual feelings, but don’t feel particularly drawn to organized religion of any stripe.  This group has been tagged the “Nones” by the Pew Forum, but that’s hardly a life-giving  name, so I’m dubbing them Liminals. (If I’m going to discuss them, then I’d like to give them a name that at least makes them sound extant.)  They’re currently residing in an in-between area;  they aren’t atheists, they aren’t agnostics, they are fine with God and spirituality, they just haven’t affiliated anywhere.
Digging deeper into the survey, we find that individually, the tenants of what we’d call religion get high marks: belief in God, frequent prayer, even going to services occasionally.  Most people do these.  But unlike in the past, there is less and less of a compulsion to declare oneself as a member of a religious group, just because you had some nominal relationship to it.
Now, more and more it seems that in order to belong to a group, you need to believe in the group.  The group needs to mean something real to you.  But overwhelmingly, people who qualify as Liminal describe organized religion as power hungry, over-political, too greedy and too concerned with rules (51% US General population vs 67% Liminals).
In other words, they like God fine.  They just don’t associate God with the church.
Which is a fascinating opportunity for us, who have found God to have some sort of relationship with the institutional church.  Clearly, the God we have experienced is not currently being communicated clearly through the institution.  There’s some block.
Yes, a good chunk of this is because we have been shouted down for the past few decades in the public square by angrier and louder voices claiming to be Christian, but at some point, we need to stand up and take responsibility for what gets said and done in the name of the Christ we worship too, at least in our corner of the Church.  Our gospel is not getting through.
So how do we introduce people to the Jesus we know?  What can we do, within the church, to better reveal the God we have known? The problem isn’t convincing folks about God and Jesus; the problem is convincing folks that the church still has a clue who God is.

Keep the Windows Open … by Megan Castellan

This week, Bishop Pierre Whalon published an essay he wrote on on reforming The Episcopal Church over on Anglicans Online, which has garnered some attention throughout our little corner of the interwebz.

The piece was detailing the nature and history of our brand of Anglican polity.  Specifically, he was addressing the concerns of the seven bishops who filed an amicus brief in a Texas court over the summer, and while it can be entertaining to watch bishops bicker, that’s really neither here nor there.

 

More to the point is an observation he made in passing:

“The General Convention is at the top of our hierarchy. Following the principles outlined above, it splits authority for the whole church’s life between the bishops and an assembly of clergy and laity elected to represent each diocese. Both “houses” must agree for any decision to become authoritative. It should be noticed that the legislative model is Parliament, not the U. S. Congress. Convention’s decisions are unimpeachable; there is no court of appeal other than future meetings of the Convention to reverse decisions.

Specifically, the General Convention rules on what is the doctrine of the Church, its discipline (canon law), and its worship. All the clergy pledge to conform to that doctrine, discipline, and worship, and should they decide to do otherwise, they are liable to be barred from exercising ministry. Other decisions are the choice of bishop presiding the college of bishops and the president of the deputies’ assembly, the budget, and matters affecting all the dioceses, such as entering into full-communion agreements with ecumenical partners. It may make pronouncements on issues of the day, but these are not binding on Episcopalians. Until this last Convention, it could also ratify elections of bishops — for no diocese can choose and consecrate a bishop by itself.

Thus when persons at their ordination(s) pledge to conform to the doctrine, discipline and worship of the Episcopal Church, they put themselves under the authority of the hierarchy of the church. Beginning with the General Convention, its Book of Common Prayer, and its canons.” (Emphasis mine)
The entire essay is informative, and worth a read. But this comment in passing, regarding the authority of Convention struck me.
Prior to this Convention, this ultimate supremacy of Convention was something I hadn’t realized, and I dare say, many within the church still don’t realize.  We’ve swallowed the US-government//Convention parallel for so long that it is tantamount to gospel by now, so much so that several resolutions appeared before the Legislative committee for Canons, asking us to decide whether the Title IV changes were within constitutional bounds, as if we were an ad hoc Supreme Court.
As Bp. Whalon points out, TEC has no mechanism to rule acts of Convention unconstitutional, save another act of Convention.

That may seem incredibly boring, and inconsequential. 

 But an effect of the total supremacy of Convention is a real opportunity to be open to the movement of the Spirit.  If we wanted, if we were willing, we could be a singularly charismatic church.  By charismatic, understand that I don’t see my fellow Episcopalians breaking into ecstatic dancing or handwaving in Salt Lake City.  (Though, should we choose to break into a few bars from The Book of Mormon, I would not be unopposed.)  

Rather, I mean that we have the windows of our church, at this very moment, firmly propped open for the winds of the Spirit to blow on through.  The ultimate authority in our church is not a hidebound set of documents our forebears wrote in a fit of angry reforming zeal, or reactionary fervor.  Our ultimate authority can continue to be the guiding light of Christ, speaking to his people through the whispering of the Spirit, in community, and in Scripture, in each new time and place.  

At this moment in our history, our charism may indeed turn out to be our ability to keep our windows open.  

My Buddy, Jesus … by Megan Castellan

On my desk sits a bobble head that I use when I have to go to university orientation events where I work.  Jesus stands there grinning and winking, head a-bobbing, as he points jauntily at you.  The figure is entitled Buddy Christ.
Buddy Christ
It amuses me to no end, and it effectively starts conversations, as folks wonder what sort of church encourages Jesus to look so downright cheerful?
But Jesus, the one that we find in the gospels, seems to have some pretty fascinating ideas when it comes to attracting followers.  He either goes with the tried-and-must-take-the-added-benefit-of-being-divine-trick of just saying “Leave whatever you have and follow me”, and sometimes adding on a neat trick of disclosing heretofore secret information.  Or, he addresses crowds, and gives his motivational pitch: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must take up their cross and follow me.”  In the parlance of the times, “Whoever wants to join up, you’re going to die.  Now who wants to come?”
Any modern PR professional would be crying softly in a corner by this point.  This is not the way to build a mega-church!  Where are the platitudes?  The reassurances?  The condemnations of the nasty outsiders?  Everything is going wrong!  This is not the way a Buddy Christ speaks!
And yet, people came.  So many people came, and followed, and some did die.  But the message of Jesus which brought them prepared them for an authentic encounter with the living God, and to be transformed by that encounter.  And that encounter required them to lose something: sometimes their security, sometimes their families, sometimes their sense of self, or their status, sometimes their lives.  Sometimes all of the above.
I don’t know that we are as comfortable with the idea of loss as the early church communities were.  We certainly don’t reflect Jesus’s methods of convincing people to follow him (that may be okay–I’ve tried the casual “follow us!” thing, and that only works on Twitter).  Maybe it’s because we have so much more to lose, now that we’ve had a taste of being in control these past few millennia.  Maybe it’s a human thing, and we need to shrink our egos a bit, and learn to fail a little more gracefully.  I’m not sure of the answer, but I do know that as Christians, we need to learn how to lose again.  We need to learn how to pray with St. Francis, “For it is giving that we receive, it is in pardoning that we are pardoned, and it is dying that we are born to eternal life.”  And by praying it, may we learn how to live it.

The Two Marys … by Megan Castellan

In Santa Fe’s Roman Catholic cathedral, made famous in Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop, there stand two different depictions of the Virgin Mary.

At the front of the church, perched atop the reredos, reigns La Virgin Guadalupe.  Appearing as an Aztec princess, arrayed in blue, she regards the faithful worshippers of Santa Fe with a tilted head and benevolent face.  St. Juan Diego, the Mexican peasant to whom she appeared, stands beneath her.  The two figures appear right behind the altar, the point of focus of the community.
But to the side, in the Lady chapel, sits another Marian figure.  This one is a smaller statue of Mary arrayed as Queen of Heaven: golden crown, white shiny dress, pearl-encrusted robe, …and skintone borrowed from a Snow White Madame Alexander doll.   This figure is titled “La Conquistadora, Our Lady of the Rosary”. My Spanish is halting and limited to liturgical phrases, but I can say with near certainty that this is not a fantastic translation.   When the first Spanish missionaries came to the Southwest, they took Mary as their patron saint, and dubbed her La Conquistadora– Our Lady of Conquest.  They felt sure in the knowledge that the Mother of Our Lord would help them tame and conquer the savage New World they were entering, and all who inhabited it.
La Conquistadora
But what amazes me is that these two Marys occupy the same church, the same space. When the Jesuit missionary priests came to the Southwest, they claimed Mary as La Conquistadora, the one who would pray for, and enable their conquest.  The natives suffered the effects of the Spanish conquest, fought, endured and died in the conflict, and yet, somehow, through the workings of the Holy Spirit, what they heard from the Jesuits became a vibrant vision of their own.  An Aztec princess appearing to a peasant, and declaring through the vision that God sees the dignity of all people, and God is confined by no one human claim on His loyalty.  As I’ve heard a wise bishop once say, despite the church’s best efforts, we should know by now that the gospel knows how to slip our grasp, and find those who need it.
 The Spirit goes where the Spirit needs to go, and yet if we want to participate in the work of the Spirit, as we who follow Jesus are bidden to do, then it seems to me that one of our vital tasks is to learn how to reconcile and redeem these two visions in our Christian past: the times we invoked God in our image to conquer, and the times we have been surprised by God in other guises.  As we turn to a new sort of mission field, we have a chance to examine, and learn from our history.  The two Marys stand before us and behind us: the Conquering Queen and the Mirror of the People.  Which voice will we heed?

Bar Graph Growth? … by Megan Castellan

Last month, when chunks of plastic began to fall off of my car, my resistance similarly crumbled, and I traded it in for a used Prius.

So far, this car is everything that it’s cracked up to be: reliable, insanely good gas mileage, and the driving experience to rival piloting a space ship.

It’s this last one that turns out to be problematic at times.  The Prius comes equipped with a nifty computer in the dashboard, which tells you instantaneously, via bar graph, how many miles-per-gallon of gasoline you are getting RIGHT THIS INSTANT.  The minute you press the brake, the bar graph shoots up and you feel a sense of righteous accomplishment, but step on the gas pedal, and it shrinks back down…along with the hopes, dreams, and aspirations of you, your children’s children, and no doubt, generations of polar bears living on shrinking ice floes.

This is a MESMERIZING computer.  (And this is not just me.  There are websites devoted to Prius owners discussing how to maximize fuel efficiency.)  During the first weeks I had my car, I found myself staring at the computer, willing that magic bar to go up.  It was all I cared about. Scenery, passing cars, angry semi-trucks behind me: all less important.

So, it strikes me that there may be some issues with instantaneous feedback.  At the very least, these easily quantifiable statistics of usually-complex issues can prove addictive.  (I unabashedly stalk Nate Silver online during election season and this is why.)  They feed our human appetite for certainty, and stability.

But in the church, they can feed into our anxiety and tunnel-vision all too easily. It’s easy to get caught up in growth as a simple math game, and worry over immediate results. Will 5 new families come if we start this new program?  If we play these new songs?  We’ve made all these changes, where are the new people we were promised?!  We start obsessing over the bar graph of growth in our minds, rather than where we’re meant to be going as a church.

Throughout Acts, the disciples gathered a community through an honest, and unflinching proclamation of what following Jesus meant, a lived-out gospel.  They weren’t growing for growth’s sake.  They were picking up the cross and following–to exile, to Antioch and beyond, regardless of personal cost, focused on their communities, and most of all, on the Cross of Christ. And this way of life drew others in like a beacon.

In a renewed, Spirit-drawn church, we need to let go of our anxiety about growth for growth’s sake.  I pray for a church where we can expand our vision, look wider.  I hope for a church where we can find the courage to proclaim, and live out, the gospel of Christ, and set our eyes on the cross.  And may God give us the faith to believe that it will be more than enough.

 

What the world sees, by Megan Castellan

This summer has been a season of reflection and consideration, not just for the Episcopal Church, but across the Christian spectrum.  Voices across the Mainline spectrum have united in calling for a renewed focus on our mission and ministry to the world.  And so, we, in the church, have been quite preoccupied with what this new thing that God appears to be doing will look like.  Where are we called?  What are we to do?  What committees shall we form?

But, lest we forget, while we’ve been bustling around inside our churches, the unchurchifed world has twirled merrily onwards.  This summer, Hulu started showing a British show called “Rev.”–marking the first time this show has been made available in the States (legally, cough cough).  The show follows an up-and-coming Anglican priest who is appointed vicar at a tiny inner-city London parish (played by Tom Hollander).    He struggles with disillusionment, odd parishioners, and pressure from the diocese to fill the seats at any cost, all the while wondering if what he’s doing makes any sense in the rapidly-changing world around him.

The show is brilliant as an examination of church life, so go watch it and cringe and laugh appropriately.  (It’s here.) But what’s really been fascinating to watch is the critical reaction in America.

The AV Club, the Onion‘s serious, culture-discussing sibling, has been reviewing each episode as it appears, and has fallen in un-ironic love with the show.  Each review has prompted the critic and the community of commenters to discuss themes of faith, doubt, God, and what it means to be an ethical person in this day and age.  This went so well, in fact, that the AV Club interviewed the creators and writers of the show about their perspective on faith.

One of the unique hallmarks of the show is that it depicts people struggling with being faithful, and struggling with being Christian, but at least making an effort in the struggle.  The protagonist, Adam, is frequently depicted praying, but never gets a response, at least directly.  But he does keep talking.

When we talk about evangelism and mission, it is at least as important to clarify how the world sees us, before we figure out what we want to say to the world.  The temptation is always to pass ourselves off as Brilliant Experts in Life, Faith, and Everything by virtue of our Church Attendance Excellence! Somehow, we think this will make people want to be like us, for we have, after all, achieved Excellence in Everything, and who wouldn’t want that?

But I don’t think that’s either believable or attractive.  Reading through the comments at The AV Club, I don’t have the sense people long for a Stepford community to make them all perfect.  I have the sense that people want to know that others struggle with the larger questions, just like they do.  They want to hear the hard-won wisdom of others who’ve been through some similar struggle.  They’d sort of appreciate it if they could see the put-together churchy folks laugh at ourselves once in a while.

And the good news for us is:

We can do all of that.